Monday, July 28, 2008

Intuition, Inspiration, the Muse--Whatever

All of us want more of those brilliant ideas that lead to interesting new projects, yes? But how to get them.

The July 28 issue of The New Yorker has in interesting article on this topic. Using brain imaging technology, scientists now think that these flashes of insight occur in an area of the right hemisphere of the brain called the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG). I'm simplifying, because before the insight, other areas of the brain try to gather data, shut out sensory input which can interfere, and search frantically for answers to the problem, and then suddenly, the insight happens, shown by a burst of electricity in the aSTG. Then somehow the brain reorders information, and we can never go back to seeing things the way we did before.

Apparently insight is more apt to occur when we are relaxed, after the necessary information has been gathered. This is why many people get their best ideas in the shower or early in the morning when they're half awake, or in my case, as I'm falling asleep.

I'm not sure how this information helps when you're trying to think of solutions except to reinforce what we know already: things like come back to the problem later, sleep on it, etc. (A glass of wine might help, or a cookie, although the scientists didn't mention that.) Fascinating though, isn't it? Now to wait for a moment of intuition...

Friday, July 25, 2008

Half-Square Triangles Galore

I've been working on my quilt based on the arrowhead picture. I visualize it as Broken Dishes blocks set together with narrow sashing (fabric to be chosen). I've spent several days making the half-square triangle pieces to set together and then putting trial blocks on the design wall to see if my original idea of making each block one color, but several fabrics would work. I was concerned about not having too big a value difference between blocks so that the whole thing would flow. I think it will work, but the sashing fabric choice will be important.

It's also important to have precise piecing on this since the black makes the points stand out so prominently. Different quilters have their own ideas about the best method for making half square triangles. I have a real problem with the idea of Thangles (sorry Thangles fans out there); they seem to me a waste of money and materials. And as for the pencil line method, I can sew more accurately than I can draw a pencil line. For a long time I was a purist: If you want to piece accurately, just practice until you can. But I've given up the idea of practice making perfect, at least for me, and now I cut the square a bit larger than necessary and trim it down after the triangles are sewn together. For a 3 inch finished square, I cut 4 inch squares, cut them in half diagonally, sew the triangles together, and then trim the pieced square down to 3 1/2 inches. The trimming is a bit of a pain, especially when there are so many blocks, but the results are perfectly accurate.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Floor Patterns

I always take pictures of floors when I travel, thinking they would make wonderful quilt designs. I have yet to make one. Here are two parquet designs from a palace outside Moscow. Aren't they wonderful? I particularly like the second one with the Mariner's Compass-like pattern because of the secondary designs it creates. I took many pictures, hoping to figure out how it was done; it's hard to see the outline of the block, but I think I get it. Piecing it would be another matter! The other one is simpler, but uses hexagon blocks. Either one cries out for paper piecing, or English paper piecing in the case of the first one. So looks like these will be just another picture for my "If I Could" collection.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Sights of Moscow

Having sounded a bit negative yesterday perhaps, I wanted to talk about some wonderful things to see and do in Moscow. First, you can eat. There's lots of delicious food--Russian things like borsch and caviar and blinis (crepes) with various fillings, good salmon. We also ate at a couple of restaurants serving non-Russian food, one Italian and one Mediterranean. Both were wonderful, as elegant and as expensive as anywhere we'd go in Chicago or New York.

Then there are the sights. Unfortunately I don't have good pictures because a) my camera sucks, and b) pictures were prohibited many places or could be taken only by paying an extra fee. I took two from this site to round out mine. Can you tell which are which? :)

This is a view of the Kremlin. I've heard that phrase all my life, but never really understood what it is. It's a fortress, the historic beginning of Moscow and inside its walls are palaces, cathedrals, gardens, monuments, and museums. The red brick is the wall of course, studded with towers, and the large yellow building is the presidents state residence. He doesn't live there, but uses it for state receptions and like occasions. It's apparently incredibly splendid, but isn't open to general public.

The interior of one of the cathedrals. Pictures are forbidden, and when I was there, it was jammed with tourists. They don't sell postcards either, so I was glad to find this picture.

One of the highlights of the Kremlin is the Armoury, a palace converted into a museum housing "the treasures of the Tsars." It's an incredible display of armour, crowns, icons, silverware, Faberge eggs, coronation robes, carriages, all covered with gold and gems. Truly breath taking; it's not just the splendor but the wonderful craftsmanship of these treasure that is stunning. Unfortunately, the visits only last two hours, and then everyone is shooed out, and it closes and opens again. Don't ask me why; I don't break my brain.

Here, outside the wall of the Kremlin is the tomb of the unknown soldier. Russian brides and grooms come here to place flowers. I like that tradition. Actually brides and grooms and wedding parties are visible at all the major sites of the city, posing for pictures, making toasts, getting their clothes dirty, getting wet in the rain. When someone wondered why the brides weren't offered an umbrella, Irena remarked, "They're getting ready for their hard life. Russian men are not kind to their wives." Ouch. The voice of experience, I'm afraid.

On one side of the Kremlin is Red Square, and one feature of that is Lenin's mausoleum. Yes, he's still in there, but only visible at certain times after a long time standing in line. I skipped this.

And finally, St. Basil's Cathedral, perhaps one of the most famous sights in Moscow. Amazing, like a child's toy with the bright colors and many textures. Inside it's a maze of small rooms, no large space at all.

This is just a taste. I'm so glad I took this trip in spite of the culture shock. Take time to look at some of the wonderful pictures on the web site above.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Recognize this?

The most obvious difficulty in visiting Moscow is the language. Unless you can read Russian a little you have great difficulty moving around independently. There are few signs using the Roman alphabet; some subway maps do, but it's hard to find one. So I traveled in a tour group most of the time. This necessarily limits what I saw, and anything I say is based on limited data. But here goes.

Moscow is big--15 million people and growing. New high rises are going up everywhere, and traffic is a major problem. Everywhere we went, we spent much of the trip sitting in traffic. This is true in spite of the fact that the excellent public transportation system is also jammed. The city is extremely pedestrian unfriendly; six and eight lane roads filled with speeding cars who DO NOT care about pedestrians separate neighborhoods, even in the historic center. The only way to cross many of these roads is by pedestrian underpasses, which have no signs indicating which way to go. Almost everyone in Moscow lives in high rise apartment houses, which range from old and shabby and to new and rather expensive looking, with every combination in between. They're mostly without charm: boxy, grey or brown, no window boxes, even in the heart of summer. However, there are lovely older buildings (both baroque and Victorian) mixed in, and churches with the familiar Russian onion domes are everywhere.

Here's the skyline. The large "Soviet Gothic" building is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I think. There are actually six of these, called the Seven Sisters (number seven was never built) scattered around the city so one is visible from any direction.

This is one of the lovely churches, the Cathedral of the Assumption, inside the Kremlin walls. Tsars were crowned here.

The first thing that would strike an American about the people is the Moscow Stone Face. To say that the service industry is lagging behind there is an understatement. No hotel clerk, store clerk, or museum person smiles; most of the women have their eyebrows plucked into pencil thin arches, which somehow adds to the unpleasantness of their stare. In addition, there are many incomprehensible rules and procedures that produce cries of "Nyet, nyet, nyet," when you misstep. You need a thick skin to visit Moscow. I suppose this is a holdover from the days of Communism; when you consider the history, openness is probably not to be expected.

This picture illustrates an example. The beautiful young woman to the left was the guide for the museum we were visiting. Some places don't allow the commercial Moscow guides to conduct tours and insist on having their own person, who only speaks Russian. So the museum guide conducted a long tour, full of statistics like the square footage of the room or how many kilos of gold leaf were used for ornamentation, all without changing expression or varying the monotone of her voice. Our guide Irena (on the right), who could make information fascinating and convey excitement for the historical places and events described, was force to translate, probably gritting her teeth in frustration the entire time.

That being said, if you have any kind of personal relationship, the people are delightful. Irena had a wonderful sardonic wit; her comment about the museum people: "We don't understand the rules either. We just say "Don't break your brain, do what they say.'" (There's lots of history in the creation of that attitude.) The Russian conference organizers, who struggled with the bureaucracy as much as anyone else, were warm, helpful, and gracious. And best of all, we were invited to the home of the parents of one of my husband's post docs. His mother had prepared a traditional Russian meal, with her own home made salted salmon (delicious), home made blinis, and other snacks. A meal includes many toasts, each one to be followed by downing a shot of vodka and taking a bite of food. Fun! One could imagine the hilarity when a big party like this gets going; we were rather staid, but I hope not unappreciative! I haven't any pictures from that occasion, but here's a band that entertained at one of the dinners. They're playing traditional Russian folk instruments, and had a wonderful time doing it.

Tomorrow, I'll talk about some of the incredible things to be seen in Moscow.

Russian News and Views

We returned home from Russia Monday night, or 6 a.m. Moscow time. Most of my pictures are still on my husband's computer, but I have a few from St. Petersburg, much the best ones anyway. I'll post Moscow pictures and some comments on the experience later. In general, I'm glad to have taken this trip and to have seen the wonderful churches, art, and architecture there, and to have reviewed some of the history. But I wouldn't go back. More about that later when I have pictures to soften the commentary.

These are views of Peterhof, a palace constructed outside St. Petersburg by Peter the Great in the 1700s. The palace was behind the German lines surrounding St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) during World War II and was heavily damaged, so the building is a reconstruction. The furniture, paintings, statuary, however, were hidden before the war, and are mostly original. The gardens and fountains are breathtaking, much more appealing than Versailles. This grand cascade was designed by Peter himself, and uses no pumps, everything is gravity fed.

This shot gives some idea of the heavily gilded baroque interior. I'm trying to get a shot of the infinite view created by facing mirrors. There are mirrors along both sides and the end of the room, so the whole effect is an optical illusion making the room seem even larger and grander than it is already.

St. Petersburg and the Peterhof are full of tourists and tour groups as they're stops on many cruise ships' itinerary, so this city is relatively tourist friendly. But if you can see the expression on this palace "guardian's" face, you'll see that "friendly" is only a relative term! Our guide and many other people were wonderful, but there is definitely a grimness present all over the country which is startling to Americans. I'll talk about that later.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Looks like Halloween, but actually this is just a few pieces I've put together for the arrowhead quilt. There will be golds, greens, and browns also with the black, and I'm doing a broken dishes block. I liked the one I did for a friend so much, I thought I'd borrow the idea.

I'm also packing for the trip to Russia. I enjoy packing. It's a challenge to take the perfect number of things, not too much, and yet not forget anything important either. An extremely interesting web site called One Bag has terrific information on this. The author is a serious minimalist; the premise is how to go all around the world with one carryon size bag. Although I don't travel like that, it's still very helpful, with a handy one page check list of what to pack, and a very long annotated packing list with recommendations in every category. It's not for someone who is going on a cruise, or lounging at a luxury resort, or staying anywhere looking fab is a high priority, but for people who are actually traveling and handling their own bags, it's full of practical information. I particularly recommend the travel clothesline made out of braided surgical rubber with loops on both ends that stretches between any two convenient hooks and holds clothes w/o clothes pins.

So tomorrow I'll finish the packing, mail my Hoffman Challenge quilt, and take off on Thursday. Back in about two weeks; do good work, everyone!